Ceramic Roof Tiles One

As the status of merchants rose during the Edo period (1600-1868), they expressed their wealth in the way their store-cum-dwelling was adorned.  Exaggeration of roof ridges and gable ends was common.
When fires bloomed
Recently a devastating fire in the city of Exeter in southwest England has once again highlighted just how dangerous a conflagration can be even today, especially in a built up area and more significantly, in a seat of history. 

Although not the source of the fire, the Royal Clarence Hotel has been gutted.  With so much wood used in its construction, this 300-year-old structure has become a shell, which may never rise from the ashes.

Historically fires have always been a problem in urban areas in Japan, nowhere more so than in Edo, as Tokyo was called before 1868.

Walls of merchant stores in particular were protected from both the weather and fire.  Here the lower tiles are permanent protection against both.  The hung wooden “shuttering” above, however, is added protection of the more or less fireproof plastered wall behind.  This shuttering would be easily removed should a fire break out near by.
Records held by the nation’s fire department show that fires were a constant threat to the city especially during the winter months when the air was dry and any fire could be whipped up by the seasonal winds that encourage dusty swirls across farmland and rattle the shutters of many of the traditional timber built houses and commercial properties that still stand in secluded corners of the capital to this day.

In 1609 the population of Edo was 160,000 meaning that the chance of loss of life was high if any fire was allowed to get out of hand.  However, that threat increased dramatically as the population swelled.  By 1693 a census recorded 353,500 people lived in this capital of wood.

The city had an organised network of fire-fighting groups and the introduction of a basic pumping engine invented in 1754 in Nagasaki must surely have helped.  It was charmingly called a “water spewing dragon”, Ryudosui (http://www.gakken.co.jp/kagakusouken/spread/oedo/06/haiken1.html).

Sadly, however, fires still raged, so often fanned by wind or exacerbated by the almost exclusive use of timber and paper to build temples, shops and homes as well as castles.  Not even Edo castle, the seat of the Shogun, was spared, although luckily damage at the time was minimal.  Now there are only remnants of what was once the largest castle in the world.

It is common for roof tiles on traditional buildings up and down Japan have a silver luster.  A coating of mica before the second firing of the tiles gives them this distinctive appearance.
The risk of fire and the spread of flame was of course recognised.  In 1601 an effort was made to reduce the chance of fire spreading.  A directive was issued to replace any thatched roofs with far less inflammable wooden boards or shingles.  This would certainly have helped.  However, records on fire prevention during the period between 1600 and 1867 make no direct mention of a compulsory use of roof tiles.  Use of ceramic roof tiles by the “common people” was, however, first allowed in 1720.  This would suggest that it was more important to shackle the less well off than it was to prevent the spread of fire.

Inevitably temples, castles and houses of the wealthy would have been the first to use ceramic roof tiles, although in rural areas reed thatch was the norm and persists today on some traditional farmhouses.

Although such buildings have disappeared from Tokyo’s streets, storehouse “fire bunkers” like this one in the City of Kawagoe represents how merchants protected their wealth—tiled roofs, plastered walls and interlocking shutters at windows all designed to keep fire out.

Fires were known as the “flowers of Edo”.  During the period between 1600 and 1867 there were upward of 550, some causing considerable loss of live and property (Edo Kasai-shi 江戸火災史 A History of Fires in Edo published by Tokyo Horei Shuppan in 1975).

The towns and villages of the Noto Peninsula did not escape damage by fire either.  Nevertheless, it was the severity of the climate in the region that saw a development in ceramic roof tiles.  More about this next time.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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